The Sutton and the Maltese Falcon

The Sutton
The Sutton sits in an area of the East Side called Sutton Place and it’s quiet, sedate, and nearby the East River.
The connection between The Maltese Falcon and Dorothy Parker is this building, the Sutton Hotel, 330 E. 56th Street. This is where Dashiell Hammett resided in the early 1930s when he was shacking up with Lillian Hellman. At the time, Mrs. Parker and Alan Campbell were well-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, and struggling against the studio system. It was a visit to the Sutton that would set in motion a long friendship between Mrs. Parker and the acerbic Hellman, a twisted friendship that would continue until Dottie’s death.

Hammett was living in the Sutton, a kind of society “club” hotel where aspiring actors, young ad agency types and music students lived. It’s a sixteen-story brick affair and it was at the time a residential hotel for people with good credit and breeding. According to one biography, the building was segregated on alternate floors for the sexes, but there weren’t any housemothers — and that’s what the back stairs were for.

Hammett, or “Dash” to his friends, was a successful writer for magazines such as the Black Mask who had reinvented police fiction. He’d had a few successful books, and Mrs. Parker had given him glowing reviews. She’d loved The Maltese Falcon but had never met the author.

Mrs. Parker was familiar with Hellman, a New Orleans native who’d moved to New York and attended New York University and Columbia, later finding work in Hollywood as a story assistant. She was a reader for Horace Liveright (Mrs. Parker’s first publisher) and married to Arthur Kober, a friend of the Algonquin crowd. She separated from him and lived with Hammett at the Sutton. She was beginning her career as a playwright.

When the Campbells went over to the hotel, it was to pick up Hammett and Hellman and head to a cocktail party hosted by William Rose Benet. This is where it gets funny. According to Hellman: “I was already uncomfortable at this party of people much older than myself, when a small, worn, prettyish woman was introduced to Hammett and immediately fell to her knees before him and kissed his hand. It was meant to be both funny and serious, but it was neither, and Hammett was embarrassed into a kind of simper.”

That moment must have set Hammett off for good, because he never wanted to be under the same roof as Mrs. Parker when she visited Hellman. One has to take whatever Hellman wrote and said with a grain of salt, she was a notorious liar and embellisher. The sad footnote of this is that Mrs. Parker named Hellman the executor of her estate, which Hellman fouled up, and wasn’t cleared up until 1988.

You can visit the Sutton today; it’s in a gorgeous part of the East Side. Walk east on 56th Street and you will come to the river views at the small parks at the dead end street. Today it is called the AKA Sutton Place and offers residential rooms.